War, slavery, disaster -- volumes of difficult subjects surface in recent releases

War, slavery, disaster. Are these subjects for a youngster to read about?
Perhaps they are. At least some major publishers seem to think so, as they increasingly put out books on these topics, many of them picture books intended for preschool or kindergarten tots. Some recent entries include nonfiction books that examine aspects of the Holocaust, the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Iraqi war, even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think parents have a responsibility to educate their children. They shouldn't abdicate it or rely on the schools to do everything," says Michael Joseph, a librarian and professor who teaches future children's librarians at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "They should help their children to select books on relevant subjects of topical concern. They should work with librarians, teachers and others to introduce children to really good books."
What's appropriate?
But which books are suitable for which children? At what age? What makes for a good children's book? How is a parent to know? Joseph and other experts have some answers -- or at least guidelines to consider.
"When you're a parent, you have to be sensitive to your child's temperament and look for indicators of when they are ready," says Joseph Scardapane, Hofstra University psychology professor and director of a psychological evaluation and counseling center at the Hempstead campus. "Look at how your child has responded to stories in the past."
Some children don't mind gruesome fairy tales or stories told by relatives, while others do. If you've noticed frightened questions, sleep disturbances or similar reactions, "you have to tread very slowly," Scardapane says. Fictional books are getting darker, too. There are children who are frightened by the Harry Potter series, he says.
However, he adds, "Some children are more intellectually inquisitive. ... They realize those events are not happening to them. They can separate themselves more easily."
Older children can create a distance between themselves and the material, he says, and "create the bridge to the fact that human beings can treat other human beings that way. But it cuts both ways. They can also make the intellectual leap to thinking, 'Who's to stop that from happening here?"'
Avoiding anxiety
Another important consideration, he says, is not to "set up a situation that creates avoidance later on." In other words, you don't want children to start linking the act of reading with feelings of anxiety. With his sons, 11 and 13 and not "readers of choice," he tries to keep reading a "joyous experience" by steering them toward lighter books (although he's also taken them to the Holocaust Museum and encourages them to read newspapers and news magazines).
There's no question that children today "are exposed to more at earlier ages. ... They are bombarded with things in the world. So it's important to monitor the things our children are exposed to," Scardapane adds. Parents shouldn't shelter their kids, but they can "moderate" their experiences of the world, he says.
Bonnie Granat, Scardapane's colleague at Hofstra's Saltzman Community Services Center -- he heads the center, and she's in charge of its Reading/Writing Learning Clinic -- agrees that picture books "are sometimes misleading to parents." Some illustrated books offer a palatable way for a fifth- or sixth-grader to learn about slavery or the Holocaust, and aren't intended for toddlers.
Offering a message
A good children's book can make some events less scary by providing a message of hope or heroism, says Lisa Von Drasek, children's librarian at Manhattan's Bank Street College of Education School for Children.
Recently, Bank Street gave an award to Jeanette Winter for her picture book, "The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq" (Harcourt Children's Books, $16), about Alia Muhammad Baker, who in 2003 moved library books to her home and those of friends and neighbors before the library was burned.
"Although it is about war, it is really about one person making a difference," says Von Drasek. "It's more a book about hope, and what we as individuals can do to help." It's not for preschoolers, but "just fine" for those 6 and up.
"Parents need to use their own judgment. You might have a child who's especially sensitive. But this might be a way to talk with a child who is playing war and doesn't understand that people are getting hurt," she says. "They're already seeing images on television and in newspapers. It's a wonderful way to start a conversation if your kids are asking questions."
Von Drasek says it's a good idea to wait for a child's question before picking out a book on a difficult subject. "Not every issue has a book, but many do." In some cases, such as the hurricanes in the South, it might be better for a child emotionally to approach the subject at "a little remove."
Volume is increasing
More picture books on touchy subjects are being published, she says, partly because people are beginning to realize that "just because children can read themselves, that's no reason not to read to them. More can be conveyed in 32 pages with illustrations" than in many longer books.
There are also more sophisticated picture books for older children, such as Philip Caputo's photograph-filled "10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War" (Atheneum, $22.95). They're good ways to approach current events or issues, she says.
But parents shouldn't "bludgeon kids with things they're not ready for if there's not a compelling reason for bringing those things into their lives," says Leonard S. Marcus, a children's book historian, author and critic. Some of the drive behind publishing books on horrible subjects is that "publishing has become more commercialized."
How a book is presented is important, he says. Providing context is "the job of the parent or other older person" whom the child trusts. "You can't say, 'Here, Joey, here's a book about the Holocaust. I'll be back in 20 minutes."' A book could be tied to a visit to a museum or battlefield or other historical place.